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Poltronova: Radical Design and Revolution

The radical design of Poltronova has made this Tuscan company a protagonist in a true revolution of design. Collaborations with renowned artists under the guidance of artistic director Ettore Sottsass forever marked the design of everyday objects towards postmodernism.

The Foundation

Founded in 1956 by Sergio Cammilli in Tuscany, far from the design hub in Milan, together with industrialist Mario Bonacchi and two furniture makers, Loredano Buccintini and Vinicio Scattizzi, Poltronova became one of the most important and innovative examples in the industry. The turning point came with the encounter between the founder and a young, brilliant architect returning from work experience in America, Ettore Sottsass. Cammilli believed in experimentation and creative design. The early years of the company were characterized by the creation of elegant, modernist furniture inspired by Scandinavian design and made of wood. Sottsass soon took over the artistic direction of the company.

A Change of Course: Towards Radical Design

After a trip to Asia, Sottsass fell ill and sought treatment in California. Both journeys left a lasting impact on the architect. The first changed his perception of sensory experiences through encounters with cultures far from the Italian one, while the second introduced him to American consumer culture, Pop Art, and the countercultural movement of the Beats with their exploration of sex and drugs. In reaction to all this, Sottsass created a style based on the importance of colors and the combination of different materials.

In 1966, some of Sottsass’s designs were exhibited at Mobil Fly in Milan in the scenography by Gae Aulenti. Among these pieces was the pop-influenced fold-out desk named Barbarella.

Sottsass Barbarella

Barbarella by Ettore Sottsass. Credit to Poltronova

That same year, Sottsass was invited by Abet Laminati to create a piece of furniture for the Eurodomus exhibition. This opportunity gave rise to a long collaboration between Sottsass and Abet Laminati, resulting in the iconic Superbox, a plastic laminate wardrobe resembling a totem on a pedestal. Initially, the object did not attract enough international interest to be produced by Poltronova. The monolith placed on a large pedestal was conceived to be placed at the center of a room, isolated, as a catalyst of energy. Being such a bulky presence in a home, the wardrobe could not achieve commercial success. It took about a decade before they were appreciated. Over the years, as the Superbox appeared in Sottsass’s solo exhibitions, it began to be featured in magazines and gradually became iconic. This mainly happened in the 1980s with the Memphis group and their bold color combinations and extravagant shapes.

Mobili Grigi and the Breakthrough

Mobili Grigi

Mobili Grigi by Ettore Sottsass

Later, Sottsass created the Mobili Grigi series, characterized by round shapes reminiscent of, yet darkened and illuminated by pink neon lights. The critics did not appreciate these pieces, deeming them in poor taste and, according to Poltronova’s admission, unsettling and unsuitable for the consumerist market. Sottsass used design as a tool for reflection, criticism, and provocation: according to the designer, gray was chosen precisely because it had no commercial success. He was right in this regard, as only a few pieces of this series were produced, with the exception of the Ultrafragola. This example of radical design is a mirror with a wavy neon frame inspired by female hair. The lack of success of this series definitively ruptured the already strained relationship due to other misunderstandings regarding the artistic direction of the company. Sottsass himself admitted that the company’s committee advised against producing any more useless furniture by the designer.

Illustrious Designers and MoMA

Throughout Poltronova’s history, many great designers, artists, and artisans have collaborated with the company, creating pieces that have become museum artifacts. Among them are Angelo Mangiarotti, Giovanni Michelucci, Gae Aulenti, Elena and Massimo Vignelli, as well as radical groups like Archizoom and Superstudio.

The collaborations with these artists yielded incredibly diverse creations. Archizoom, for example, created the famous Mies armchair, one of the most representative objects of the Radical Design movement with its geometric and abstract form. On the other hand, Gae Aulenti’s Sgarsul is an elegant rocking chair, an example of the Neoliberty style and one of the brand’s most celebrated projects.

In 1972, Poltronova had a presence with eleven pieces by its most famous collaborators at the exhibition “Italy: The Domestic Landscape” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, better known as MoMA.

The Future of Poltronova’s Auctions

The objects produced by Poltronova have experienced considerable success at auctions, particularly in smaller auction houses where collectors and enthusiasts have shown great interest in acquiring these unique and iconic pieces. However, one wonders if the allure of Poltronova’s designs will soon capture the attention of larger auction houses and prominent collectors. With the growing appreciation for their historical and artistic value, it is possible that big auction houses and renowned collectors will soon take notice, leading to heightened interest and potentially increased profitability for Poltronova’s remarkable items. The anticipation of this potential surge in interest from prestigious quarters adds an air of excitement to the future prospects of Poltronova in the auction market.